The field lists for the winter and spring racing seasons are flooding out now as the sport begins to emerge from its turn-of-the-year hibernation. The Dubai Marathon goes off  tonight at 10 pm ET, while the Boston Marathon, London Marathon along with the New Balance Indoor Grand PrixMillrose Games and USATF National Cross Country Championships have recently released their talent-laden casts.  And just today Competitor Group announced double Olympic champion Mo Farah for their New Orleans Rock `n` Roll Half (with more top names to come, according to athlete coordinator Matt Turnbull.) Running afficionados are anxiously circling calendars and planning their travel and internet viewing accordingly.

At the same time, Entertainment Weekly posted an EXCLUSIVE story today informing us that the ABC reality series Dancing With the Stars has offered Lance Armstrong a spot on its upcoming spring season.  According to the EW story, Armstrong has declined the offer. That news comes on the heels of a similar story about troubled actress Lindsay Lohan who also turned down an appearance on DWTS (reportedly rejecting $550,000 in the process).

So, what’s the lesson here?

I had an email exchange with Millrose meet director Ray Flynn last week regarding the excellent fields that he’s put together for not only the showcase Wannamaker Mile, but for the Two Mile event, as well.  What I wanted to know was, “what needs to be done to gather interest beyond the athletics’ world bubble?  In other words, what are the stakes these athletes are racing for? Isn’t that the missing element when we try to engage the general public? Ok, a wonderful field has been assembled, but what’s the purpose of the race other than winning it? What’s the hook for those outside the sport?”

Ray replied: “The Millrose Games is in its 106th year. Having run it on six occasions, I am a big believer.  I think these kids like the idea of the big stage, we’ll set up a great race, and it’s good timing for them.  You may think I’m deflecting and that athletes only race for money. I don’t think so. They want to know that they will be part of something great! This will be a great race. The first time I got to race in Oslo, I would have slept on the floor.  All that mattered was that I had arrived on the big stage! It’s a show in the end.”

The key to that exchange was that Ray was still looking at his races through the eyes of an athlete; it’s what the races meant to them that counts. What I was wondering was what the races might mean to the public; why would they want to watch?

Earlier this morning I had another exchange with yet another old friend who’s no longer in the sport, but who, at one time, was one of its most flamboyant and controversial promoters.

Bob Bright directed the Chicago Marathon from 1982 to 1989, the time during which enormous interest in the sport was generated when Beatrice Foods sponsorship and Bright’s combative style competed against nemesis/rival/friend Fred Lebow of the New York City Marathon when those two fall giants were scheduled only one week apart. Before getting into the foot racing business New Jersey native Bright had worked as an assistant horse trainer at Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga. His other sporting passion was dogsled racing as three times he raced the fabled Iditarod Dog Sled Race in Alaska.

“When I look at all three sports I am interested in,” Bob began while out on a 12-mile mountain bike ride outside his home in Santa Fe, “the problem comes down to management. In all three sports the athletes are performing better than ever, but in all three the public recognition isn’t near what it used to be. And it’s how they are managed that’s the problem.

“We got publicity in the `80s (in marathoning) because we made the money public. Who cares who the runners are? The public wants big payoffs like in golf and tennis. And the big money isn’t to attract the athletes, it’s to attract the media. Athletes are easy to get. Money is used as bait to get the public involved. Right now Phil Michelson is in the news because he made $60 million last year and now wants to move out of California cause he thinks he’s paying too much in taxes. You have to manage and promote these sports to the point where people are interested in the outcome.”

According to Bright running could learn a thing or two from Dancing with the Stars.

“I’d do one of two things. First, I’d sign Suzy Favor Hamilton.  If she came out and said, ‘I’m going to train for a marathon as part of my recovery process, the audience would be tremendous. Overcoming obstacles is a major part of what sport is about. If you’re looking for pizzazz, there it is.  Fact is, you need shock and awe now to get the public’s attention, since running has been off the radar for so long.

“Another way would be to take the millions of dollars that are already being spent at the big city marathons, but which are currently outside public view in appearance fees, and put that money on the line, winner take all in a handicap race.  In the old days we used to have handicap road races in New Jersey.”

We had them in Boston, too.

“So put on Million Dollar Handicap where anyone can win. You take, say, sub-2:15 guys and sub-2:35 women – find the number you want in the field and work backwards from there. Verify those times, then line them up in Las Vegas with the slow people going out first. If everyone thinks they had a chance to win, it would be a big-ass deal. Promote it a year out and hire Suzy Favor Hamilton as your first runner out. Shock the system. You’d probably be able to get a casino guy to put up the money.”

Not sure how deep Bob’s tongue was embedded in his cheek – it often was back in the day – but his point was made, shock and awe. Do something!  I also spoke recently to another current-day promoter who shared Bright’s sense that this sport is lacking a spark, but who asked to remain anonymous.

“Marathoning needs a salesman. When I watch terrible Bowl Games played in front of almost empty stadiums being sponsored on TV, I realize more than ever marathoning needs a savior who can explain to the world the sacrifices that are made to excel, where a human being sacrifices so much and relies almost totally on themselves to be successful. Maybe someone will come along who will do something, anything to drive professional running into the consciences of the media and corporate America.”

“The fact that they can’t market this sport is ridiculous,” concluded Bright.

Somebody call Suzy.


12 thoughts on “RACING WITH THE STARS?

  1. If USATF would give me a budget, I’d get more Track & Field meets and road races on TV. Heck, i might even be able to swing a Cross-Country race as well. It can be done, but I don’t see anyone taking the lead to plan, organize, facilitate, augment, cultivate, etc. relationships amongst USATF, IAAF, the NCAA, the meet organizers, etc. to get Track and Running regular slots on TV. Imagine if we had Sundat Night Track as regular feature on espnU during the winter? The NFL is basically over, college hoops does not play on Sunday nights, and hockey is on other networks.

    I realize the meets would not be live, but, hey, ya gotts start somewhere! And here’s what we’d have:
    From late January thru the USATF Indoor Championships, we could have two hours of Track & Field every Sunday night. The Tyson Invite, Millrose, meets from the Armory, even some IAAF highlights. It can be done. Why are we only getting 2 hours of tape delay of Millrose? Doesn’t the meet cover 3 days with high school, college and professional athletes? Why isn’t espnU, you know, the ones that televise LIVE high school football PRACTICES, showing some NCAA and HS events?????

    As for the miniscule coverage we do receive, I have e-mailed, tweeted, and facebooked Boldon and others one of my best suggestions for getting more casual viewers interested in T&F: tell us where all these athletes went to college! Maybe not a lot of people know Walter Dix, but the darn well know the Florida State Seminoles. If the casual viewer hears the announcers say “Penn State”, “USC”, “Nebraska”, “Florida Gators”, etc. well, now their ears perk up and maybe they stop and wath the whole broadcast…..

    I’m sorry, I rambled long enough, but it just frustrates me to no end that we can get poker, auto shows, snow mobile racing, hot dog eating contests and the national spelling bee on TV, but we can’t get Track & Field?!?!?!?!? Oh, did I mention that they also put high school football practice on espnU?

    1. Thanks for the suggestions, Coach. We need more people trying to come up with the proper formula to reintroduce the sport to the next generation. And in our society being seen on TV validates. If we limit ourselves to internet outlets like Flotrack and RunnerSpace alone, as good a service as they provide, we are only preaching to the choir, not reaching out to grab the new fan. Keep thinking.

  2. Toni,

    Enjoyed your post. No disrespect was intended towards Suzy Favor Hamilton. She was a terrific world class runner. In her peak years if I was still recruiting runners she would be right at the top of my track list. If you recall, I skulked the worlds great track and field events in search of the next great marathoner.

    Even at age 40 or so, if she was so inclined Suzy could run a dandy marathon. Her going public with her recent difficulties demonstrated great courage and should be applauded. I am also hoping she has a sense of humor.

    Even in my old obsolete state I am positive money could be raised and the 1 Million Dollar WINNER TAKE ALL Las Vegas Handicap Marathon could be staged.

    As I examine the list of awesome marathon times for both men and women there is no doubt the the main media and non running public attraction would have to be Ms Hamilton. Just read today’s USA Today and the level of reader interest

    A handsome appearance fee would be provided and no doubt a shoe contract.
    Probably not the conventional runner type deal. Something a little more up scale.

    The only doubt I have Toni, is. Do you think she can run 26.2 miles in 5 inch heels. lol

    Bob Bright.

  3. Always enjoy your posts, Toni. Great stuff. As a newly recognized USATF agent, I agree whole-heartedly. The only way to take the sport to the next level is to think outside the box. Keep challenging us to get there.

  4. Adam

    Briefly, betting has been going on Athletics (Track & Field and road running) in Europe for some considerable time e.g. and

    The IAAF Position was outlined in their Code of Ethics for the Sport published in 1st May 2012:
    6. Betting on Athletics and other corrupt practices relating to the sport of Athletics by IAAF Officials or Participants, including improperly influencing the outcomes and results of an event or competition are prohibited. In particular, betting and other corrupt practices by Participants under Rule 9 of the IAAF Competition Rules are prohibited.

    Betting does bring interest, yes, but not necessarily the best interest.

    We should ‘sell’ the races – the spectacle of athlete against athlete – we should not be selling the obsessive focus on outcome times and performances. If the race is significant and the public can see athlete against athlete (think, Bolt) then betting is unnecessary for the masses. Rudisha’s 800m victory and the manner of his victory in London 2012 was all-involving in the race and only after he had crossed the line did the public see, WR as well!

    1. Hi, Peter,

      As always, you make fine points. Competition, not time, should be the focus. Nobody cares what the score in the Premier League games may be, or in the Super Bowl. It’s who beat whom. Time is the product of the competition, not the purpose of the competition. All the best.

  5. I always thought you would draw in more people if you took a cue from horse-racing: betting. Let people place bets on runners in races. They may already have this in Vegas, but it could be brought to bigger meets and marathons.

    1. Adam,

      Betting would be great, but it might be too easy to fix the races. But we have to find someway of investing interest in the outcome, that’s for sure. Higher stakes is a good start. If you don’t have athletes that generate interest on their own, then the stakes they are competing for has to be the attention grabber.

  6. I have just begun talking to a boutique running clothing manufacturer. My very first advice was to hire Suzy. Class lady who made a mistake which went viral. Beautiful, fit, smart, a nice lady really but now with a story that transcends the sport. No brainer. And it would be good for all. We all need to bounce back in this life. So does the sport.

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